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Baltimore County votes to exempt pre-1960 signs from county ordinance

After investing $700,000 to renovate a struggling White Marsh motel and restaurant he bought two years ago, Ronald Parker was worried that a battle over the decades-old sign could cost him his business.

Parker, a 67-year-old attorney who lives in Harford County, lost a Baltimore County administrative hearing earlier this year after a resident reported that signs at the business, the Williamsburg Inn on U.S. 40, were too large and didn't conform to current county standards.

"To me, it's ludicrous," Parker said. "The signs are landmarks that have been there for 60 years.

"Those signs are the main way I advertise," he said, referring to a tall Colonial-themed sign at the restaurant and the large blue rectangular sign with lights informing motorists whether there's a vacancy or not. "If they're taken down, [the business] will go under."

On Monday, the Baltimore County Council sided with Parker, approving a measure to exempt signs erected before 1960 along certain highways from current standards and allowing them to remain — as long as they are not otherwise derelict.

"If it's not icky-looking, why would we want to take it down?" said Council President Cathy Bevins, a Democrat, who introduced the legislation. "Some of [the signs] are iconic."

The county updated its signage laws in 1998, setting standards for size and types of signs allowed based primarily on zoning and building size. Businesses with that didn't comply were given a 15-year grace period to change them.

That period expired last year, so companies with nonconforming signs became subject to fines of up to $200 a day if cited by the county. Officials said code inspectors, who deal with issues ranging from rat problems to abandoned properties, haven't looked specifically for signage violations, but have issued notices if matters are brought to their attention.

Bevins said the 1998 law hurts older businesses along U.S. 40 — such as the Williamsburg Inn — and also along U.S. 1, both major thoroughfares for travel before the construction of Interstate 95 in the 1950s.

Bevins said that after the interstate was built, many businesses needed larger signs to grab the attention of drivers. She said the provision allowing signs installed before 1960 to stay is appropriate to save signs that, according to the bill, "have become part of the fabric and identification of such businesses."

Removing them, the bill stated, "would alter the nature and significance of these businesses and their settings."

The council passed the bill unanimously with an amendment by Councilman David Marks to exclude U.S. 1 properties from the measure. Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said U.S. 1 in Baltimore County is more residential and less developed than U.S. 40, so nonconforming signs are inappropriate there.

But the bill also affects properties along other U.S. highways throughout the county. Mike Pierce, a retired telecommunications worker from Kingsville, opposed the measure, saying nonconforming signs should be removed, whether they are old or not.

Pierce, 67, filed the complaint that led to the Williamsburg Inn's being cited. He said he has no problem with historically relevant signs but contended that Parker's signs are too big and garish. He accused Bevins of bringing up the legislation solely to protect the Williamsburg Inn and noted that the council vote came just weeks before an appeals hearing that Parker requested on the issue.

"My problem is that this bill is intended to disrupt the legal process for this one property," Pierce said.

The Greater Kingsville Civic Association also opposed the measure.

"We don't see a compelling reason for the bill," wrote Doug Behr, the group's secretary, in a letter to Bevins submitted before Monday's hearing. "If the intention of the bill is to preserve what must be at most a tiny handful of signs that are historical or iconic in nature, we'd like to see a list of such signs."

Bevins said she has received complaints from several business owners about the regulations. The Baltimore County Business Association supported the bill.

"Maryland is not a business-friendly state," said Kathy McCourry, the association's president. "There's no need to create another hurdle for business owners. We want to see businesses prosper, not another vacant spot."

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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